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    South Asia
     Oct 27, 2010

Drones ever-closer to Pakistan's militants
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Qari Hussain Mehsud, whose specialty was training suicide bombers, is the latest in a string of high-level militants to be killed in Pakistan's tribal areas in attacks by unmanned United States drones.

These mounting casualties show that the net is tightening on the militants and their al-Qaeda colleagues now concentrated in North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan. There is also much debate as to where the US is getting its information to carry out an increasing number of successful strikes - from intelligence networks integrated into the local population or from high-tech surveillance, or a combination of both.

The latest reports indicate that 1,863 people, including civilians, have been killed in 184 US drone attacks targeting militants in


Pakistan since June 2004. Significantly, though, 749 people have been killed in 89 drone attacks in 2010 and September witnessed 16 operations, the maximum in a month, followed by 11 attacks in January.

Mehsud is reported to have been killed in Mir Ali in North Waziristan on October 4. Initially, a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban - TTP) - to which Mehsud was associated - denied the report.

However, a high-level leader of the TTP as well as a senior counter-terrorism official confirmed to Asia Times Online that Mehsud had died in the attack.

Apart from other incidents, Mehsud had claimed responsibility of suicide attacks on Shi'ite Muslims in the cities of Lahore and Quetta last month in which scores of people were killed.

Luck finally runs out
Qari Hussain Mehsud had previously been reported killed, notably after his house was destroyed in January 2008. He was later said to have died in a June 2009 air strike in South Waziristan, but he telephoned reporters to prove he was alive.

The Pakistan government had placed a 50 million rupee (US$585,000) reward for Mehsud's killing or capture, along with similar rewards for other TTP commanders.

Mehsud escaped at least 12 attempts on his life because either the information passed on to the US was incorrect, or he had moved before an attack took place.

The frequency of the operations against Mehsud increased after the deadly suicide attack he helped orchestrate on Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan in December 2009.

Seven US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives, including the station chief, died when Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi blew himself up. Jordanian Balawi had been trained by Mehsud.

Mehsud worked with Ilyas Kashmiri and his 313 Brigade, which infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan National Army at the base.

In a report released this week, CIA director Leon Panetta concluded "systemic failure" had led to Balawi being allowed onto the base even though Jordanian intelligence had warned he might be a part of an al-Qaeda trap.

The drone attacks on Mehsud escalated further after Pakistani-born US citizen Faisal Shahzad was arrested following his failed attempt on May 1 this year to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, New York. He and his nine-member cell in Islamabad had been recruited by Mehsud and trained at one of his suicide camps in North Waziristan.

On October 5, Shahzad was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to a 10-count indictment that included charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting an act of terrorism.

Mehsud's flirtation with death by drone missile attack finally came to an end this month. On October 4, after being pin-pointed in the Muzaki sub-district of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, a drone struck, leaving Mehsud injured and three of his guards dead.

Mehsud was immediately moved, but he was again tracked down in the sub-district of Khushali in Mirali and on October 7 he was killed when his station wagon was hit by a drone's missile.

Dropout to danger man
Mehsud, born in South Waziristan in about 1988, moved to the southern port city of Karachi to further his Islamic studies, from where he dropped out to join the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, a banned anti-Shi'ite militant organization.

He then moved back to South Waziristan and soon won notoriety for brutally killing anti-Taliban figures and for introducing the practice of slitting the throats of Pakistani soldiers. He developed his own network and began training people for suicide attacks.

When the first battle in the Swat area in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province between the Taliban and the military broke out in 2007, Mehsud joined the fray, along with his suicide squad. He established a reign of terror across the valley that had once been know for its tranquility, beauty and peace-loving residents.

One of his more gruesome habits was to teach valley militants how to slit a throat with a rusty knife, film the incident and then distribute it on a video recording.

By now the small-fry sectarian agitator had evolved into a national terror ringmaster. Although he was considered a part of the TTP, he often took his own initiative for attacks in Pakistan.

The military operations in South Waziristan last year dislodged the TTP from its traditional region, forcing it to relocate to North Waziristan, where it was welcomed with open arms by al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

TTP members were given space in Mir Ali, home to a large section of al-Qaeda's global headquarters. The TTP and al-Qaeda had coordinated in the past, but the migration brought the two organizations closer together than ever before.

This new relationship was soon reflected when the TTP - which previously had only been known for anti-Pakistan army operations - and 313 Brigade planned the attack on the CIA base in Khost.

That such a wily operator as Mehsud could be tracked down, and that the US is clearly determined to maintain the intensity of its drone attacks, indicate that the going will get even tougher for the militants and their al-Qaeda colleagues now gathered in their last remaining bastion in North Waziristan.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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